The thing about writing a blog is that every so often you come across something that you absolutely love, but can't work out for the life of you how to use it. I have a folder at my desk simply labelled “random” full of little bits of weird and wonderful stories, statistics, newspaper clippings, and scraps of paper with a single sentence or just one word on it, all of which I promise to find a use for and never do. Every so often I'll reopen it, hoping to find something relevant that I can use for whatever I happen to writing about at the time. More often than not I spend my time scratching my head, wondering why the hell I thought the population growth of Belgium between 1983 and 1997 would be useful for, well, anything.
(Gee note: By the way, did you know that there are more Elvis impersonators in the World than there are actual Belgians? Feel free to use that interesting fact at cocktail parties, you'll be the toast of the town.)
Anyway when writing about the Monkey Man this week I was a bit pushed for time, and so sacrificed my usual perusal of the Random folder thinking that I wouldn't find anything useful in it anyway. Instead I simply read as many reports as I could in the time allowed and wrote my thoughts on the subject.
Alas I now wished I had dug in to my collection of odds and ends because, as I found out this morning, mass hysteria isn't just a modern occurrence. Flipping through the file I came across something my pal Rob Haines, knowing my penchant for all things peculiar, had sent me about a month ago (Gee note: That's also the second plug for Rob in about as many weeks. I should work on commission or something.)
Now I don't know how you feel about dancing. I went to the wedding of a dear friend recently and ended up, to use the parlance of our times, shaking my booty. It lasted all of thirty minutes before I realised that A) I'm ridiculously unfit and that B) I really have hit the point in my life where I'm starting to bust a move like my father would.
So I can only imagine how uncomfortable I would feel if I was in Strasbourg, France, in 1518.
Not that there's anything wrong with Strasbourg itself you understand. Or France for that matter. Any country where people drink wine like mineral water and a three hour lunch is welcome, nay expected, is A-OK with me.
But in 1518 in that very location a woman named Frau Troffea started to dance out in the open on a narrow street. For, er, no apparent reason either. Seriously, it wasn't like Stevie Wonder was busking on the corner or something (Gee note: Quick question. If Stevie Wonder was a homeless busker you'd give him money right? Well what if you were walking past and the only song he was singing was “I just called to say I love you”. Would you give him any spare change then? I hate to admit it but I'd really have to think long and hard about it.)
This is where it starts getting a little strange. Because Frau didn't do just a little jig and head off on her merry way. Instead she kept on dancing. And dancing. And dancing. And dancing. And dancing. Reports indicate that she danced for four to six days non stop before succumbing to exhaustion. She shouldn't feel to bad about it though. Even the great Muhammad Ali gave up trying to dance after just six minutes in Zaire in 1974.
One would think that if someone has a mental breakdown and starts body popping in public places, they would either be arrested, mocked mercilessly, or ignored. But Frau must have tangoed up a storm because by the end of the week 34 people had joined in, almost as if it was fashionable (Gee note: “Darling, saving the environment was so last season. It's all about stepping up now.”).
By the end of the month the number of people dancing numbered in the region of 400.
It should also be pointed out that these people were, by all accounts, really dancing. Not convulsing or suffering from spasms. It was real, honest to goodness, Patrick Swayze style, boogying down. And eventually people started dying. Heart attacks claimed some, other's were taken by strokes, with exhaustion also getting it's fair share.
They had, quite literally, danced themselves to death.
Now all this is very interesting. But what, if anything, does it have to do with the Monkey Man? Well one explanation put forward for both the panic in India and the disco fever of Strasbourg is a psychological condition known as “Mass Psychogenic Illness” or MPI for short. A form of mass hysteria, MPI can be known to cause large communities of people to go crazy in ways which seem strange or even absurd to an outsider. It is usually triggered by extreme levels of psychological distress, and seeing as Strasbourg was slap bang in the middle of one of the worst famines in history at the time one can safely say that would count as a factor. And, if like me, you initially find that the idea of people killing themselves by doing the mashed potato because they're a tad stressed a little unbelievable, I'd like to direct your attention to a case of MPI in Singapore 1967. During this time thousands of men were reported as suffering from “Genital Retraction Syndrome”. Or penis panic if you prefer.
(Gee note: Basically, it's when otherwise perfectly sane males convince themselves that their sexual organs are slowly disappearing into their own body, much like a frightened turtle. Those sensible folk at the Singapore Government eventually had to order a media blackout and a series of public broadcast announcements explaining in the nicest possible terms that penis retraction is in fact biologically impossible, just to halt the epidemic of rather terrified men.)
And so when looking at the two cases MPI seems to fit the bill rather nicely and explains an awful lot about the events that occurred both in Strasbourg and New Delhi.
Unless of course there is really a half man half monkey tearing up the streets of India, and that 500 years ago the people of France were possessed by a dark demon who liked to cha-cha-cha.
Because if that's the case then, comparatively, losing our collective minds might not be so bad after all.